Who Wrote This Article and Their Expertise: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.
Progressives and That Ukraine Letter
How much support does Biden’s Ukraine policy have from American progressives? A letter signed by 30 members of the House of Representatives Progressive Caucus was released on Monday that threw the firmness of Biden’s support into question. But two days later, the letter has been retracted amid a firestorm of controversy and criticism, and we know perhaps less than we did before it was released.
The Ukraine Letter: Details
The letter echoed a familiar refrain about the need for diplomacy to settle the war between Russia and Ukraine in order to avoid escalation and extraordinary levels of destruction. Specifically, it called for direct U.S. engagement with Russia to attempt to reduce the chance of escalation and to find a path to ending the conflict. However, the letter also reaffirmed the need to maintain Ukrainian sovereignty, the justice of Ukraine’s cause, and in particular the need to include Ukraine’s voice in any kind of diplomatic settlement.
As more than one reader of the letter pointed out, this produces a contradiction. The United States is supposed to engage in direct talks with Russia (which would by definition exclude Ukraine) while also refusing any deal that lacked Ukrainian buy-in. If the U.S. cannot come to terms with Russia without Ukrainian consent, then the purpose of talks between Washington and Moscow (beyond the track 2 negotiations over nuclear assurances that have continued for the extent of the war) is altogether unclear.
To be sure, direct talks between Russia and the United States have a surface appeal; why would it be wrong for Moscow and Washington to talk about the conflict in which they have found themselves? In practice, however, direct talks would necessarily exclude Ukraine from many of the most important decisions about its future. The U.S. need not yoke itself to Ukraine, but excluding Ukraine would be a tactical error and strategic idiocy. There is no reason whatsoever to take seriously Russian preferences to exclude Ukraine from negotiations. The idea that the United States and Russia could have or should have negotiated an end to the Vietnam War without involving either the Saigon or Hanoi governments is laughably stupid, and yet it demands “direct engagement” for an analogous situation.
The letter was aggressively publicized by the Quincy Institute, a bipartisan think tank focused on foreign policy “restraint” that has harshly criticized U.S. support for Ukraine. It immediately received attention from the Washington Post and others, with reports focusing on how the letter revealed discontent with Ukraine policy in the President’s own party.
Then the cracks began to show. Several of the signatories expressed surprise that the letter had been released at all. Apparently, some had signed earlier in the year, when Ukraine’s prospects on the battlefield appeared much grimmer. Others criticized the arguments in the letter, as well as their potential impact on support for the war. By yesterday morning, the letter was retracted.
What happened? Josh Marshall and others have suggested that the effort was coordinated between progressive caucus staffers and the Quincy Institute and that most of the signatories had no idea the letter was about to see the light of day. It may have been designed as an attempt at a fait accompli to the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the Ukraine War. If so, the effort backfired spectacularly and may affect long-term relationships within the progressive foreign policy community.
It is not inconceivable that the Biden administration might welcome some pressure from progressives on the Russia-Ukraine War. Biden’s national security team has pursued a cautious policy with respect to the war, maintaining support for Ukraine while taking extraordinary care with Russia’s red lines. As I have argued previously, the likelihood that a Republican-controlled or divided Congress will actually defund efforts to support Ukraine is pretty slim. But Biden also has hawkish critics, and the presence of a well-thought-out and articulated body of support for diplomacy could help make it easier if the administration needs to make difficult choices in the future about the nature and extent of support for Ukraine.
Unfortunately, this effort at skullduggery may have spiked any immediate prospect for serious diplomatic pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.